It's hard not to feel sympathy for Dolly, the despondent and desperate housewife who, craving the love she thought she had with her husband Stiva, lives vicariously through others' adventures in love and imagines a love affair to call her own. When we first meet Dolly she is reeling from Stiva's betrayal, futilely attempting to pack in order to leave him. Her thoughts, her argument with Stiva and her brief consultation with her sister-in-law Anna all reveal the impossible nature of her situation: "I can't leave him. There are the children, I'm tied. And I can't live with him." (p. 68) Though she "could kill him," Dolly can't stop loving him and heeds Anna's advice to reconcile with Stiva. All that remains of their rift is her slightly mocking tone when she speaks of or to her husband.
The Great Pretender
The quintessential "mother hen," Dolly drowns her private grief by tending to the needs of her family. Dolly barely has a chance to dry her tears before a drama greater than her own heartache demands her attention: her sister Kitty and Anna find themselves in a love triangle with Vronsky. Surprisingly, Dolly smiles at Anna's admission of weakness, dismisses Vronsky's attraction for a married woman as Kitty's good fortune, and rushes off to console her sister. Although the entire Shcherbatsky clan knows about Stiva's infidelity, they offer Dolly little or no support. "Painful as it was for [Princess Shcherbatsky] to see the unhappiness of her eldest daughter, Dolly ... her worry over the deciding of her youngest daughter's fate consumed all her feelings." (p. 45) Dolly stoically bears her father calling Stiva her "trump" and Kitty's contempt for her staying with a man who doesn't love her, but she doesn't hide Stiva's behavior. She says, "He goes out all the time, I almost never see him." Though she has already begun to suspect him of another affair, believing it would jeopardize her family stability, "she allowed herself to be deceived, despising him and most of all herself for this weakness." (p. 121)
Not only does Dolly's power of self-deception numb her heart, it also protects her family. All along, Dolly has believed in Anna's innocence but when Karenin confesses that Anna has consummated her relationship with Vronsky, Dolly lies to Karenin about her own experience to protect Anna from ruin. "My husband deceived me. Angry, jealous, I wanted to abandon everything ... Anna saved me. ... My husband comes back to the family, he feels he wasn't right, becomes purer, better, and I live." (p. 394) All this, she says, after Stiva has abandoned her and their six children in the country for the summer.
The Monotony of Moral Life
When Dolly decides to visit Anna on her own, she feels as if she has been released from prison. Free to think, uninterrupted, during the four-hour ride, Dolly is consumed by a mother's fears: How will she send her children out into the world with no support from Stiva, burdening her aging parents or the newly-wedded Levins? She is haunted by the possibility that she may become pregnant again and worse yet, bury another child. "And all that for what? That I, having not a moments peace, now pregnant, now nursing, eternally angry, grumpy, tormented myself and tormenting others, repulsive to my husband, will live my life out and bring up unfortunate, poorly educated and destitute children." (p. 607)